A Walk on the Honduran Runway
December 5, 2011 § 15 Comments
Fashion is a funny thing in El Progreso. This city, which is as close as one can get to living in an oversized oven, is normally too hot for any sort of style other than naked. It doesn’t matter whether it’s day or night, or if you’re standing in the sun or sitting in the shade, as you will sweat at all times. Like an amphibian, you must constantly hydrate yourself before you shrivel up into a prune inside a pile of your sweaty clothes. For this reason, you wear rags, since you don’t want any of your nicer clothes to suffer the torment of your perpetual, stain-inducing sweat cycles.
I thought I was being smart when I folded up my nice clothes and stored them in a place where the sunlight would never reach them. I came to find that said nice clothes, along with most of my rags, suffered an end of a different but undeniably tropical sort…ants.
Suddenly, all of my clothes began appearing with tiny holes throughout that were either caused by the armies of ants that infiltrated my home, my cupboards, my garbage can, and now…my wardrobe. Nothing gets past these voracious red suckers that feast on fabric like it’s cotton candy. Thanks to them, most of the clothes now look more like oddly colored slices of Swiss cheese than clothing.
Given the reality of my living situation, I decided there was no other choice but to give up on fashion altogether in El Progreso. Instead, I would sport my worn and torn rags until time passed and this city either cooled down or I was out of it for good.
I made it several months without purchasing any clothing at all. My co-workers joked about my work attire – tank tops, exercise shorts, and flip-flops – and often suggested that I conform to dress code without ever demanding that I do so. On a few occasions, they drove me back to my house and forced me to change for “important meetings” with potential donors, all of whom would arrive to OYE in their equally comfy and sweat-dampened clothes.
There was the occasional time I would receive an invitation to more formal events that required me to dress in something that wasn’t NGO-casual. My friend Mahchi, a local artist in his late fifties, normally took me to those, and each time he did he would be devastated upon seeing me in my formal wear: a black t-shirt, matching black Thai fisherman pants, and three-year-old Havaiianas.
“You can’t wear yoga pants to a wedding, Mikito!” he told me once shortly before we left to crash a wedding in Copan.
Mahchi scolded me unapologetically until he guilted me into scouring my clothing collection for something “acceptable.” When nothing presented itself, Mahchi dragged me to his home and threw an emergency set of clothes at me that I could wear in the meantime.
Mahchi was also the one who brought me to the mall eight months into my Honduran experience. There was a big sale at Zara, with some nice shirts costing as little as $5.
“You are buying clothes for yourself and that is that,” Mahchi said. “And none of that earthy crap.”
At Zara, I splashed into a world of multi-colored skinny jeans and graphic t-shirts made of thin, soft fabric that I hadn’t had the pleasure of touching in months. I tried on a collection of beautiful and reasonably priced jeans and shirts, enjoying the experience of wearing each one and realizing how nice it would be to actually own some new clothes.
“Mikito – you should be a model!” Mahchi shouted as I came out of the dressing room sporting a pair of green jeans. “Shouldn’t he be a model everyone?”
The heavily made-up woman who oversaw the changing room’s dissemination of numbered tags nodded in agreement.
“I’ll take his number,” she said. “I’m a model.”
“Give her your number, Mikito,” Mahchi said. “You’re going to be a model!”
I rolled my eyes at Mahchi before sharing my digits with the girl. “I think you have to own at least one pair of nice shoes if you want to be a model, Mahchi…”
“Then buy some! You never know what will come, Mikito. Funny things can happen in this little town…”
The girl never did call, but a strange series of “funny things” did take place that ended up landing me a modeling contract…albeit a verbal one with no strings attached. The new gym opened up next door and I attended the opening cocktail party in its parking lot. Asked to perform in a dance contest, I climbed the stage to dance to Michael Jackson, punta, and Poker Face, much to the delight of a glitzy and glamorous Honduran crowd. One of my backup dancers was the gym’s spinning instructor, who I wouldn’t come to know until I started taking his classes at the gym one month later.
The spinning instructor’s name is Luis Angel, but everyone calls him Chiki. Chiki is a specimen of a human being, if he is even human. If Adonis were to return to the earth from the clouded mounts of Olympus and take the form of a young, Honduran male, that male would most certainly be Chiki. He is perfectly bronzed with chiseled cheekbones, a sculpture of a body that is 100% muscle, and a rock hard muffin butt that he showcases daily in his spandex biking shorts. His divine presence drives women and gay men insane and has the unique capacity to make straight men forget that they are straight. People follow Chiki around in a cultish matter, as if he were some patron saint leading the masses to a promised land. His popularity is proven by his collection of 4 Blackberries and 5,000 Facebook friends, not to mention the fact that he has so many pending friend requests that he is now impossible to add.
God must be the man who defies the laws of Facebook…
Chiki was the one who helped me land a yoga-teaching gig at the gym. He was kind enough to take my class, thus drawing all of the men and women of the gym with him.
Every God has his Achilles heel, and Chiki’s happens to be his hamstrings. As I learned in yoga class, Chiki’s legs are so tight that he can barely reach his fingers below his knees when he does a forward bend. Too impatient to assume a modified posture, Chiki usually ends up falling to the ground and laughing instead of completing any of the hamstring-related asanas.
But the determined Chiki made it through the entire class despite his inflexibility. When I left the gym, he was back upstairs teaching his spinning class. I didn’t bother saying goodbye, since I assumed I would see him the following morning at spinning class.
I took a quick shower at home. While getting dressed I received a call from a phone number I didn’t recognize. When I picked it up, I was surprised to hear the soft and scratchy voice of the one…the only…Chiki.
“Hola Michelle?” Chiki asked. He hadn’t quite gotten the right pronunciation of my name yet, but I didn’t mind.
“Chikiii!!” I yelled, unable to control my excitement. “How are you?”
“I’m fine,” Chiki said, laughing. “Listen Michelle, I have a question for you. Blah blah blah…”
Chiki is one of those people who speaks Spanish so quickly that sometimes he’s impossible to understand.
“…blah blah blah…amor helado?”
Did Chiki just say…“amor helado”? I thought. The phrase translated directly into “love ice cream,” but because Chiki had said it, my mind automatically interpreted it as “ice cream lovin’.” I proceeded to conjure up an image of two people making love in a giant vat of vanilla ice cream.
“Ummm…what was that, Chiki?” I asked.
“Blah blah blah…amor helado?”
Now I was certain that Chiki had just said amor helado again, though I had no idea why. Could he have possibly been asking me if I wanted to have amor helado? If so, then answering “yes” would have been risky, since amor helado sounded a bit extreme, even for my tastes. At the same time, answering no would have meant passing up a chance to make love with a deity, which was something mere mortals only ever got to do back in the days of the Greek gods. Conundrums…
“Amor helado?” I asked. “What exactly do you mean by amor helado?”
“Chiki…you can’t just define something by using the same words.”
“No, no, no,” he said, laughing. He decided to try again, but this time more slowly.
“Ohhhhhhh…” I said, responding with the foreigner’s extended utterance of understanding. Instead of asking me if I wanted to have amor helado, Chiki was speaking to me in usted and asked “ha modelado.” (Translation: Have you ever modeled?)
“That’s so funny,” I said. “Since I…well…because I heard…ice cream lovin’…”
“Yeah…” Chiki said. “No…”
I thought back to a short-lived modeling career in DC that involved hitting the runway for a fat diva man who insisted on calling me “Genesis” and later posing as a human corpse at a private Halloween house party. If those things didn’t count as modeling experiences, then I didn’t know what did.
“Sí, sí, sí,” I said quickly, trying to push the whole amor helado thing as far back into the past as possible. “I have modeled.”
“Good!” Chiki said. “There’s a show this weekend that I’m coordinating. I want you to be in it. Can you make it?”
“Sure Chiki,” I said. “But only under one condition.”
“Will there be helado?”
“Este Michelle…” Chiki said before hanging up.
The modeling show was at the store Compadre in San Juan, a small town near La Ceiba. Chiki worked in the store’s marketing department, which meant he was in charge of organizing events that would help sell its collection of hand-me-downs from the United States. Each piece of clothing had something wrong with it – uncomfortable fabric that left invisible dander on your hands, buttons that were too big for the holes, and zippers that wouldn’t zip. I ended up finding a few diamonds in the rough that fit me well and that I could use for the event. Chiki approved of my outfit choices with a “Wow,” which I’m pretty sure translated into to same exact thing in English, though I could have been mistaken.
The actual modeling event was about 10 meters away from the highway in the middle of a very poor town. People came by the hundreds, most of them with sun-aged faces and rags that didn’t look all that different from the kinds of clothes I wore in El Progreso. For them, of course, wearing rags wasn’t a choice but a reality. As models, we were there to show them that their fashion horizons could be broadened at very affordable prices.
We had to model five different outfits on a wooden runway. We remained on stage as the event’s host, Jay Jay, commented on our outfits and shared the prices of each article of clothing. After the runway there was a dance show that featured three beautiful Honduran women and Chiki, who danced the entire time like a wild Brazilian. The crowd’s collection of coffee-colored eyes, mostly male and female, was focused on Chiki, who hypnotized the viewers with his movements.
God must be the man who can deflect an entire audience’s attention from three scantily dressed Honduran women…
Once the show was over, we enjoyed a meal paid for by Compadre and received our payment for the day. Then the other models and I packed up into our small private bus so we could head back towards El Progreso and then San Pedro Sula to drop everyone off.
As fate would have it, Chiki and I ended up sitting next to each other on the bus ride back to El Progreso. He wanted me to teach him Portuguese, which I did for about thirty minutes until we slipped into practicing English instead.
“So how was the show, Chiki?” I asked, leaving deliberate gaps of silence between each word.
“Good!” he said. “Very, very good.”
“And how did I do?”
Chiki lifted his hand in the air and shook it from side to side.
“What?” I asked, shocked at Chiki’s candor. “Was I that bad?”
“No, but you could have been better.”
“So what was I on a scale from 1 to 10?” I asked.
“You were…an 8.”
“An 8?” I asked, nearly yelling. “Why?”
“Your head was down the first time. You got better after that, but your head can’t be down.”
I supposed Chiki had a point. I knew I had a tendency to look down at the ground when I walked, which I had to do in El Progreso – a city where hundreds of holes in the streets and sidewalks eagerly await the chance to gobble up the feet and legs of innocent pedestrians.
“And how was the show on a scale from 1 to 10?” I asked.
“A 10?” I asked. “And I was an 8? You mean…I was the only bad part about the show?”
Chiki smiled and laughed in his little cheeky way. Something about the laugh pacified my mortal mind, causing me to gloss over the insult entirely.
My 8 must not have been so detrimental to my new modeling career, since Chiki called me back the following day to let me know that he wanted me to model in two more shows at Compadre’s new, three-story building in El Progreso. With nothing else better to do, I told Chiki that I would be happy to do the shows. I also promised that I would keep my chin up this time.
At the first show, I waited my turn to have my face powdered and blushed by a surly make-up artist with painted eyebrows. She was in the middle of making up the women with what looked like glittery raccoon eyes.
While waiting, I tried to strike up conversation with the other models, all of whom were thumbing at their Blackberries with utmost determination. After I managed to distract the models long enough from the small screen, it would take about five seconds before they would ask me to take their pictures. I spend most of the afternoon hopping from person to person, taking pictures of them upon request, all of which they complimented and proceeded to upload onto Facebook.
I spun around and nearly screamed as a woman who looked like Morticia Addams attacked my face with a kiss. When she backed away, I realized it was Ariana, a girl who I had met at the previous event. She was wearing a black dress, and her long, black hair fell over both of her shoulders to her waist. Her once tanned face was powdered white, and her raccoon eyes were caked with glitter.
“Hola Ariana,” I said. “How have you been?”
“Good, good.” She extended her arm to hand me her Blackberry. “Take my picture?”
Ariana and I turned to see Chiki, who was not only god-like but chic in a form-fitting black tuxedo with a matching shirt, vest, and tie. Like an innocent townsperson being rescued by Spiderman, I stared at Chiki with wide and hopeful eyes, for I was certain he was there to save me from this strange world of Blackberry fields and vain photo shots.
“Ariana, you have to get changed into your first outfit!” Chiki yelled, scolding her like a father would to a daughter.
“But the AC is so cold,” Ariana said.
“I don’t care if it’s cold! Get into your first outfit and get into it now!”
Chiki turned to me and took a deep breath in and out.
“Yoga,” he said with a laugh. “Michelle…come with me.”
I obeyed and followed Chiki. He led me to Gary, one of the male models who I had met at the last event. Gary was wearing a pair of stylish black jeans with a white zip-up sweater that was left open to showcase his ripped chest and chiseled abs. We greeted each other with a hand slap and knuckle bash.
“Gary is going to show you how to walk,” Chiki said.
“Are you suggesting that I walk funny?” I asked.
“Yes,” Chiki said.
Gary, a personal trainer, folded his arms over his inflated pectorals and stared at me with drill sergeant eyes – the hue of which he had modified with dark blue color contacts.
“Go over to the other side of the room and show me how you walk,” Gary said.
I bumbled over to the other side of the room and turned around to prepare myself for walking the runway.
“That was all wrong!” Gary said.
“But I didn’t even start walking yet.”
“Yes you did.”
“No excuses! That was awful!”
I realized I wasn’t going to win the argument, so I quit and allowed Gary to criticize my walk in its state of absolute normalcy.
“You’re looking down and bouncing way too much,” he said. “Why do you bounce? Plus, you move your hips from side to side. And your arms – they are only supposed to move once with each step. One arm, one leg. One arm, one leg. You’re moving your arm like three times with each step.”
I gulped and I tried to imagine what I had been walking like for the past twenty-six years of my life. My mind settled on the image of a decapitated Big Bird zigzagging around on his purple chicken legs while flapping his wings up and down like an oversized hummingbird.
“I must be wasting so much energy…” I said.
Gary nodded. “You probably are.”
I knew that my walk might be a little different from most, but never in a million years did I think that absolutely everything was wrong with it. Surely my parents were to blame for this. Where had they been when they were supposed to have taught my small, toddler self how to properly put my feet in front of each other?
“Try again, Gary said. “Don’t bounce. Don’t look down. Don’t swing your arms.”
Suddenly there were so many variables to think about that I didn’t know where to start. Plus, it didn’t help that my legs had stiffened up into what felt more like long, wooden poles than limbs. Now I was sure I had no hope of ever walking right.
“That means go…” Gary said.
I took a deep breath before taking my first step.
“Stop smiling!” Gary yelled.
“Okay!” I said.
“And don’t talk!”
This Gary is starting to get on my nerves, I thought as I walked down the aisle like a moving corpse.
By the time I made it back to Gary, Chiki was laughing.
“Hello Mr. Robocop!” he said.
I rolled my eyes.
“Did you honestly just reference Robocop?” I asked.
“You have to relax your shoulders,” Gary said. “And this time you didn’t move your arms at all. One arm, one leg, one arm, one leg. You have to feel natural.”
“But my ‘natural’ is weird.”
“I know,” Gary agreed. “So you just have to do it differently.”
Gary proceeded to guide me up and down the aisles of the store, much like a mother goose would do while swimming with her newly hatched goslings. It turned out that was just what I needed to relax into the model strut, which I ended up getting after a few more tries. Gary then had me walk the entire room several times until he and Chiki were convinced that I had it down right.
“I can’t believe I’ve been doing this wrong for all of these years,” I said.
Chiki laughed before patting me on the shoulder and darting away to attend to more event logistics.
Allan, a middle-aged modeling agent with a fondness for wearing sunglasses indoors, approached the models and told us that it was almost time for the mannequins to assume their places in the store windows.
“We just need a guy to model the underwear!” Allan said, his tone urgent.
Everyone in the room turned to Gary, who by that point was shirtless and wearing two belts around his neck.
“Underwear?” Gary asked with a gulp. “I don’t do underwear.”
My jaw dropped. I couldn’t believe Gary, who always walked the runway shirtless, was bashful about doing it in his underwear.
“Why Gary?” I asked.
“Because I don’t want to be a stripper,” he said.
Allan seemed to respect Gary’s opinion and turned to Marco, the second most naked guy in the room who was wearing an unbuttoned pink shirt.
“What about you, Marco?” Gary asked.
“No way,” he said. “You can’t see my abs today.”
Allan scoffed. “Abs…I can’t believe these people…”
“How about the gringo?” one of the female models asked.
All heads turned to me. Allan rubbed at his chin with his thumb and forefinger as his eyes scanned my fully clothed form for its imperfections.
“Would you do it?” he asked.
“Of course I’d do it,” I said.
Allan’s eyebrows nearly reached his scalp he was so excited.
“Well get naked!” he said. “Let’s see your body.”
I agreed and proceeded to remove my shirt and jeans in front of the roomful of people.
Once I was down to my bright blue boxers, Allan assessed my body once again.
“You know…I think you can do it,” he said. “I just want to see more chest. Do some push-ups.”
“Woo hoo!” I said, jumping as high as I could in the air.
Gary chuckled while shaking his head.
“So American…” he said.
With no time to waste, I dropped to the ground and started pushing myself up and down in my underwear.
“Lift up your head,” said a skinny girl in a turquoise dress.
I looked up at the unlikely trainer who was standing over me with crossed arms, giving me advice on how to sculpt my body.
“And move slower!” she commanded.
“Okay,” I moaned as my tired arms tried to eek out a few more push-ups.
“Look at those boxer’s Michael’s wearing!” Allan said. “You can’t wear those out there!”
“Why not?” I asked, lowering my knees to the ground.
“They’re full of holes!” Allan said.
I felt the blood rushing to my face. I hadn’t yet noticed the holes in my newest pair of blue boxers, but the revelation came as no surprise.
“It’s the damn ants,” I said.
The others in the room responded with nods of understanding.
“Well go grab a pair of new underwear from the store,” Allan said. “Put them on and you’ll be ready to go.”
Before long, I was standing for 45-minutes in front of a window that looked out upon a crowd of well-dressed Hondurans who were eating dinner and drinking champagne. I was the only naked mannequin, save the blue underwear with white writing on the bottom of the cut that read “Sex Instructor.” Some audience members laughed, and others allowed their eyes to linger for longer than I thought was appropriate. I stared them all down, taking my mannequin job as seriously as possibly since I knew Chiki and Allan were watching. Meanwhile, the other models carried on conversations behind the glass, complaining about how hungry they were and how much their legs hurt. Even Gary contemplated walking out of the display window and outside so he could snatch some food from the spectators.
After completing our shift, the models and I were off to change into our outfits. We had to walk the runway of each of the three floors of the department store in the dark while blue, green, and yellow lights shone on us to illuminate our forms. I maintained a cool and steady stride, mimicking Gary, who Allan has conveniently assigned to walk in front of me. On the first level we had to walk outside and pose at the end of the runway before returning upstairs to change as quickly as possible into our next outfits.
When the show was over, the models and I were allowed to go outside, mingle, and most importantly…eat. Sadly, all of the food was gone, and the only alcohol left was carbonated red wine.
I caught sight of Chiki and Allan sitting at one of the tables. I ran up to them to ask how the show had gone.
“Very, very well,” Chiki said.
“You were great, Michael,” Allan added. “You were the only one who stayed completely still the entire time! But you looked so angry…sort of like you wanted to kill someone.”
“Hello Mr. Terminator,” Chiki said, laughing.
I decided to forgive Chiki for his more respectable robot reference.
“Is that bad?” I asked.
“No…” Allan said. “As long as you don’t scare the customers away.”
“What about my walk?”
Chiki gave me a serious look before lifting up both of his thumbs
“A 10,” he said. “Good job, Michelle.”
Chiki smiled. When he did, his front teeth sparkled the way an actor’s might in a toothpaste commercial.
I could feel the blood rushing to my cheeks. Getting congratulated for walking properly wasn’t something that would normally serve as a source of pride for me, but hearing those congratulations from a gracious Honduran god was enough to convince me that perhaps I had accomplished something after all. Though what I had offered was a far cry from a sacred ritual or blood sacrifice, it was a start. An innocent, naked, and utterly human start.